Here’s something I’ve said hundreds of times in the creative writing classes I’ve taught over the years:
A character without a past doesn’t have much of a present, and certainly has no future.
You could write this:
John walked into his office with a cup of coffee in his hand.
But you have not created a character. You’ve got a name, nothing more, something paper thin.
On the other hand, you could write this:
The day after his mother’s funeral, John walked into his office with a cup of coffee in his hand.
You suddenly have a character with the beginnings of a past.
I’ve heard the writer Josh Weil say that a character should have a wound and a want. A wound, something from their past that they must address. A want, perhaps growing from their wound, something to send them toward the future.
So to return to our plot outline for the journey story
The background, creating characters who have a past, is vitally important.
There are other parts of the background that are also important, and I think you would do well to be able to answer those famous questions from journalism: Who What Where When Why and How.
Why do people go on journeys? Or, more to the point, why do people go on journeys in stories?
The Quest is the most common reason. If you look at the list of stories from a couple of posts ago, a majority of them are quests of one kind or another. And the goal is concrete and specific. In “The Father,” the main character is looking for his child. In “The Rich Brother,” the main character is searching for his younger brother. In “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” a teen-aged girl is going to meet a boy she thinks is in love with her. In “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” the Vikings are going to find a monk they think has cursed their crops.
Sometimes the goal of the quest is a Maguffin. That’s a term that I believe originated with Alfred Hitchcock, and it refers some object that exists mainly as an excuse to create story. For instance, the Maltese Falcon was a Maguffin. The weird glowing suitcase in Pulp Fiction was a Maguffin. So is the stolen infant in Raising Arizona. Or the suitcase of money in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
Maguffins are great, and if you create one that helps you tell a compelling story, there’s nothing wrong with that. I might prefer the goal of a quest to be something with some resonance for the inner life of characters, but I always like a good story. The Maguffin might be a prescription that a character needs to pick up at the only 24-hour pharmacy in the area. If it helps tell a good story, that’s all that matters.
But can a journey story begin with something more quotidian than a quest? Of course. “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” begins with someone heading west, without any real goal. And “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” begins with a family vacation to Florida. But note, in each of these, an antagonist arises that actually gives shape to the story. Without the Misfit appearing in Flannery O’Connor’s story, it would have only been a series of misadventures for a family. It’s the encounter with the antagonist, Belle Starr or the Misfit, that makes these into complete stories.
There’s one other reason worth mentioning that people go on journeys in stories: The Nemesis.
Anyone who is a fan of Les Misérables has encountered one of the greatest nemesis characters in fiction, Inspector Javerts. The nemesis is a bit rarer in short fiction, but it’s certainly something to be considered. Your character can be running from something as well as seeking something. In “The Five-Forty-Eight,” by John Cheever, a concupiscent businessman is pursued by a secretary he seduced and then fired.
There’s also nothing to say that a good quest story can’t also have a good nemesis as part of it. Frodo is on the way to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, but he’s got the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, on his trail.
The other questions are a little less vital to telling a good journey story, but important to know and depict in the story. Where does story takes place? If a character is journeying on Interstate 80 across Montana, it’s going to feel different than a character traveling between Gulfport and New Orleans. When does a story take place? If you don’t specify, readers will assume it takes place in a vaguely defined present, which might be fine. But you should be clear in your own mind. If it’s 2014, there are smartphones. If it’s 1964, there are payphones. And if it’s winter, it’s different than if it’s summer. And how is your character traveling? Airplane? Train? Motorcycle? Stolen Car? Foot? Oxcart?
So, to sum up:
Who: A character with a past, with a wound and a want.
What: A journey
Why: A quest for something concrete, something that grows out of the character’s wound.
A quest for a Maguffin.
A journey without a defined object, during which an antagonist arises.
A journey to escape a nemesis.
Where: A place that you can describe authentically and well.
When: What year does the story take place?
What time of year does the story take place?
How: What are the means of transportation?